This podcast covered the first two chapters, the Introduction and the Hemetic culture in the Greater Alps. Future Sanctuary episodes will each be a single covenant.

Ars Magica was a very different game 15 years ago. it was low fantasy and the historical research was, if not worse, then deliberately less detailed. The level of research that I did then could be done in a weekend today and could be far surpassed by anyone who had the free time and an internet connection. The game was also different because – or at least this was the argument I made at the time and I realise some people will disagree – the primarily American audience of the game was looking for something akin to a western, where the characters go out into the wilderness and carve out a settlement for themselves.

A point that I tried to make – and may have hammered home quite heavily in the first few chapters of Sanctuary of Ice – was that for characters to be heading ever westward seeking newer pastures there had to be somewhere back east. A place with more resources and more infrastructure from which your characters come.

When I first started writing Sanctuary of Ice it was going to be a book about designing older covenants: that layer was peeled away and only the example covenants left. Sanctuary of

Ice is a little bit different from the other early books in that it’s difficult to pick a particular covenant that’s the villain. The earlier books generally all had a villain covenant. The reason for it was to make stories very easy to design. It’s easier if the foe comes pre-designed. Basically, the villain was whoever wanted to tell you what to do. I wanted to get to the point where people were trying to manipulate you not because they had a will to power, but because they had goals they wanted to achieve. I’m not certain that worked in all cases, so I’m looking forward to going back, through this podcast, and finding ways to extrapolate and extend upon the material.

The second edition book “Order of Hermes” said that there were seven covenants in the Greater Alps. I wanted more, and to get around that problem (rather than saying that the earlier book was wrong) I used the chapter house system. People have often said that I invented chapter houses, but I don’t believe I did I believe I took them from an earlier work. Regardless they were used for getting around that restriction. Thus we begin the tradition of design by accrual, which makes the game more difficult for new people to grasp.

I’d also briefly like to make the point that the terminology – chapterhouse – doesn’t make any sense. A chapter house is a room in a monastery or attached to a cathedral where monks read at a biblical chapter, or a chapter of the rule that they follow, each day. I presume it’s a misattirubtion and what’s meant is a dependency or a daughter house. This comes up explicitly later when one of the covenants is referred to as the Motherhouse.

Two of the covenants are not described. This has always been how tribunal books work, but the problem is that means if you are wanting a complete setting out of the box, chunks are missing. I wrote all seven: the others will be included in this project. If you want a classic, evil, autumn covenant to bully your characters, the lack of covenants gives you the space to add one.

The next few pages deal with virtues that tie your characters to Sanctuary setting, even if your covenant is set somewhere else. The idea being that your characters could visit this tribunal without having to have a covenant here. In the early tribunal books, this was not how things were done: each of the tribunals had a different theme and a different feel: a different genre. I’d argue that if we were to do it again we should go that way.

In some of the later books you get repetitions. Where is the Autumn covenant who are the villains? Who are the plucky Spring covenant beset by faeries? In the same way that an empty tic tac toe board initially seems to present nine options but actually only gives you three, when you’re picking a tribunal that is some sensation, particularly in the older tribunal books, that the choices don’t actually matter. They are iterations on a smaller number of choices with different props. Different genres would disrupt that repetitive pattern.

It would also solve Forum questions like “Which tribunal should I play in?” Genre tags make it easier: if Transylvania is Gothic horror and England is Comedy and Spain is Spagetti Western (pick your own) it makes the choice easier. I also like the idea of games with genre bonuses for spellcasting. It helps players keep tone. I hand a great game where the characters were members of the Royal Society and spell levels were a magnitude lower if they were stereotypically British.

I used Roman symbols as status markers. The Order claims descent from a group of Roman magicians, and the material was close to hand. When you’re writing, you don’t know how many shots you’ll get. If you find good material you might as well use it. You can make arguments that a person should be patient and wait for the appropriate book, but who knows if the appropriate book is going to come?

The map in the introduction isn’t excellent. I am not criticizing the people who made the map: they drew the map based on transparencies I sent by email. The modern day the tools we have to construct maps are just so much better. With Transylvania we traded Google maps with pins in them, not just for places but plot hooks. I’ll look at that as part of this process.  The covenants are placed to support a border found in a previous book: they would be in different places, based on research, if this were done again. I’ll address that in later episodes.

Having worked through the first chapter now let’s look at the second chapter.

I took an icepick to the idea of covenants living in manorial seclusion. I did this again in Covenants, because it’s the lazy design choice: the obvious design choice. It’s the medieval-feeling design choice in the sense everyone wants a castle and to be left alone. Books that you pay for shouldn’t necessarily cater to that choice. The books have to push extremes because otherwise, having read them, you don’t feel like you seen anything new: so the book seems stale.

Also very early Ars Magica authors didn’t understand how feudalism worked. This isn’t their fault: the understanding of feudalism has expanded a lot in the last two decades. Early writing tended to see the way the Normans behaved in England as the model of feudalism which everyone else followed. That was never the case: they were a fringe exception. People were interdependent and pyramidal power structures really didn’t happen. Even in British history, that pyramid deals structure was an ideal. It was an ideal that people who were fighting to be on the tip of the pyramid respected only in the sense that it gave them a role to aspire to.

In Sanctuary of Ice, everyone needed to have enough is to maintain themselves to maintain voting rights. This is a direct response to some of the material which had been in the previous Ars Magica books. They stated that magic was fading out of the world because magi were overusing the resources which were available to them. I thought that if magicians have noticed this trend, they would do something about it, and the people who would do something about it were the people who had the most to lose.

Initially magi with guaranteed vis seem independently wealthy, but really aren’t getting anything they don’t already have through the covenant design process. In the new edition none of this is necessary because, if anything, magic is becoming more common. Magical auras appear around places where great magic is performed or where magical creatures live.

Your characters are doing great magic, so they are grinding the mundane shell off the world. Magic fading out is necessary if you want to do something like Tolkein or Mage, but that’s not terribly interesting and strong stances against it would be taken in later books. This means that in the new edition, Public Vis Source lacks the strong moral underpinning it had when we were talking about population control for conservation purposes.

This is the first time a tribunal has a taxing power. If Hermetic warfare is rare then, once again, feudal territorial structures break down.

In feudal England, at least theoretically, about a castle are people who can take shelter there. When they are not doing that they tend the land about the castle, to maintain the lord’s capacity to defend them. That’s romanticized: it’s not really how medieval peasants felt about the whole thing, but that’s the theory.

If you are not going to be having regular wars, power diffuses over the resources available, and because it’s not encoded in architecture it becomes rather more like Southeast Asian structures: concentric circles of influence which people into these things call “mandalas”. If you have a series of concentric circles of influence, and you have some belief that military aggression is unlikely, there Is no reason to gather all of your magi together. You can instead spread them out into those places where their research is most assisted by the environment. This is where the chapter idea comes in.

The idea that magi murder their evil children, and ostracise their enemies, were placed in this book, again, so that characters who were somewhere else could be drawn in. …And when I say somewhere else I mean England. Everyone was playing in the British Isles at this stage of the game. How can you be enticed to travel to the Alps if your covenant is in Britain? This is a major focus of the first two chapters.

Later Tribunal books, rather than merely giving the mechanism of ostracism, would give a series of plot hooks directly. For example:

  • Your characters discover a diary from a beloved mentor that indicates that they were ostracized from the Alps for a crime they did not commit. The characters can investigate, then ameliorate or avenge.
  • An ostracized archmage moves into your tribunal and is spending his time plotting revenge. He asks for your assistance, or is grabbing resources of yours.
  • A character’s mentor has been ostracized and must move all of her valuables out of the Alps. She asks for the characters’ assistance to transport valuable, mystical treasures.

The modern writing style is that pretty much everything should tie directly into plot hooks rather than merely imply plot hooks.

If everything is permanently in the state of about to boil over it doesn’t make sense to split the party by sending people travelling. In history, however, we have examples of people who do just this. Good King Macbeth from Scotland goes to Rome and leaves his kingdom for two years without many problems. The kings of England never do this, except during Crusades, because the kings are permanently in a state of war (either within or with France) and so they can’t afford to take time away from the realm.

Travel magic was rarer in early tribunal books. This is one of the first that tries to edge around that inconvenience, again to drag in characters who live elsewhere.

Hoplites already existed, but the idea that they worked for a tour of duty, had stations, and were rewarded with longevity potions was new. Before this, a Guernicus would ride into town like a sheriff in a Western, discover wrongdoing, and then be able to do anything about it. They started having violent deputies, but these were ad hoc.

In this edition, longevity potions required Corpus magic, and so every sensible magician eventually specialised in it. If you spent time doing something else, like fighting for the stability of the Order, you would age and die faster than more self-interested people. The free potions allow characters to maintain their specialisations. This is less important with the newer edition’s aging rules.

I added amaranth, which is an addictive drug that affects magi, because I wanted characters to have the possibility of committing crimes that would have a penalty less serious than death. The Code hasn’t a lot of grey in crime stories. It was not explicit in any of the previous books that Merceres borrowed magic items from a reserve that their House maintained, even though that seems obvious.

The items are called “Whitlams” which some Australian players have thought was a nod to Gough Whitlam, an Australian Prime Minister who believed in building up public assets. This isn’t directly the case: I was listening to an album called “Love This City”, by the Whitlams, when I wrote this.

The annual Ceremony of Welcome was a device to draw together the party. A fault in the earlier system was that an apprentice could only be freed at a Tribunal. I presume the idea was that the tribunals would rotate around Europe, but as the books were written, the tribunals were set to be within a year of each other. An annual ceremony, and interfering elders, are one way to get a variety of disparate magi together. The magical fair at Tribunal now seems like an obvious idea, but in the early books, the point of the Mercere network was to fulfil those needs.

The magical games were included to push the idea that magi do not seek Experience points at all times. They have lives outside increasing their power

Photo credit: Foter.com / CC0
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3 replies on “Sanctuary of Ice: the boring bit at the beginning

  1. I like the discussion of the changes in design philosophy between 5th edition and earlier books.

    I must say I did prefer the idea of a villain covenant. While published covenants should be competing for resources or have complicating goals having an identifiable bad guy is helpful to GMs. Not that I agree with it but I understand the writers wanted to go with a shades of grey approach. But without a “black” covenant all of the later tribunal books came off as shades of light grey. Bland.

    Yes I was free to add my own villain covenant, and I did this in my campaign., several times. But it would have been nice to use someone else’s design.

    I like the modern style that everything ties in directly to 2 or 3 story seeds.

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  2. I really like Sanctuary of Ice for a number of reasons, so I’ll be following these posts closely.

    I’m a big fan of the Alpine Redcaps and I reworked Cymena of Rorschach for 5th edition as a nod to SoI.

    Also large covenant intended as a potential starting base for Provencal characters, the Coenobium Rhodanien in “Faith and Flame”, draws heavily on the Hermetic culture of the Alps as the founders were at least partly descended from magi of an abandoned Provencal Alps covenant known as Portus Cottiae.

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